At 70, Ed Ruscha is a California classic still going strong, as his exhibition at the Portland Art Museum proves. In a small gallery on the fourth floor of the Mark Building, the exhibition addresses Ruscha's preoccupations with mirror images, time, perception and decay. The works that grab your eye first are Azteca and Azteca in Decline (both 2007), oversized acrylic paintings on canvas based on a billboard Ruscha saw in Mexico. In Azteca, a gritty, abstracted sunburst in red, green and blue fans out its rays in seedy glory, the rightmost sunbeam defaced by a graffiti tag. In Azteca in Decline, the same motif is presented in sad decrepitude, its contours crumpled, withered and deflated. Surprisingly, the faint, ghostly graffiti is still in the exact same spot on the canvas; it is revealed not to have been part of the sunburst after all, only of the picture plane behind it. Huh? Ruscha is toying with us, questioning where reality ends and artifice begins. Is there an invisible dividing window, he seems to be asking, between the picture plane and the subject matter?  Is there an invisible divider between the artist as a creative force and the zeitgeist in which he makes art? The answer comes only with decay, Ruscha implies. Age and obsolescence reveal the shams of style and persona. Shouting and waving our fists and paintbrushes, we slowly hunch and calcify while the dumb-mute background behind us remains, unmoved.

These themes echo in two other works. New Wood, Old Wood, also from 2007, counterposes imagery of an intact wooden plank with one that is beginning to split apart. A work from 1973, Spread, shows the word "SPREAD" as a mirror image. Throughout the show, the artist challenges us to examine two versions of the same thing, separated by the minor variants of perspective or time. Time is something we love to pretend doesn't matter. We love that Harrison Ford can still crack a whip and beat up the bad guys as Indiana Jones; we love that Madonna still prances about onstage, singing "La Isla Bonita." And yet, would we want to have sex with the 66-year-old Ford or the 50-year-old Madonna? (Don't answer that.) Ruscha's musings on decrepitude call us on our cultural lip service. Prattle on as we might about the gifts of wisdom and experience, which one, given the choice, would we rather be, own or screw: Azteca or Azteca in Decline?


Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-0973. Show closes Sept. 21. $8-$10.